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Thursday, March 4, 2004
Updated: March 9, 9:14 AM ET
Is it steroids or sour grapes?

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Let's get it straight from the beginning.

This feeding frenzy, the 'Roid Outrage, expressed, by us, about whether Barry Bonds used performance-enhancing dietary supplements or anabolic testosterone-based steroids, is a case of dry and bitter Sour Grapes. Period.

Why?

Well, I'll tell you why.

Barry Bonds
The numbers speak for themselves: Bonds is closing in on Ruth and Aaron.

It's not like you can all of a sudden sneak up and have 700 home runs in the big leagues. There is nothing, absolutely nothing on this green earth that you can eat drink, sniff, inject or rub on yourself that can make you hit 700 home runs in the Show. That product exists only in our collective imagination, and if he did drink the spiked Kool-Aid, so to speak, this would include Bonds.

Because if that were the case, in spite of all the "outrage," bottles of the stuff would be getting knocked back by just about everybody. People who are currently "outraged" would not only use it, they'd have their kids on it.

That's how much baseball, and baseball myth, and money, mean to us.

Vote: Bonds and Steroids
 Bonds
Sour grapes or genuine concern? How would you describe the media's handling of Barry Bonds? Cast your vote, SportsNation!

But you know and I know, deep down inside, there is no such product.

We also know Barry Bonds has 658 home runs. And counting.

The Bonds/steroids issue changed in the last week, with the new San Francisco Chronicle reports that he was sent steroids by Greg Anderson and/or BALCO. There's still a leap from that to him actually taking them, and, if he did, for how protracted a period.

So is that really what all this 'Roid Outrage is about?

Bonds' Gift
Steroids don't help you hit a curveball or determine what pitch is coming next.

So, where does Barry Bonds' genius at the plate come from? In a Sept. 21, 2001, article in ESPN The Magazine, Bonds explained the art of hitting and how his instincts were helping him track down Big Mac's single-season record.

I think so. Want to look in a mirror and see? Let's.

* * * * *

Let's start with Syd Thrift, former general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates when Bonds first came up. Sixteen years ago I went to do a story for Sports Illustrated on Thrift, and on the success of the young Buccos, who were doing well in spite of a low payroll, with players like catcher Spanky Lavalliere, second baseman Jose Lind, outfielder Slick Van Slyke and infielder Bobby Bonilla -- all of whom, it should be noted, are no longer playing big-league baseball, which flies in the face of the theory that whatever Bonds has accomplished is chemically-induced. Don't steroids eventually break you down and cause terrible physical problems, rip the tendon from bone and swell organs up and cause muscles to screw and malfunction rather than extend and contract as they do naturally?

But isn't Barry Bonds out there every year, year after year, performing at the highest level? Where's Jose Canseco? Where is Ken Caminiti? Where is Brady Anderson? Where is Mark McGwire? Isn't that strange, for a man abusing even so much as food, or alcohol, or tobacco, or illegal pharmaceuticals, or certain other alkaloids, to have such longevity? Is Barry Bonds, by all accounts an egotistical sort, secretly sneaking around washing down monster steroids with water from the Fountain of Youth?

Barry Bonds
Bonds attacks the pitch like it's coming to him in slow motion.

Now back then I didn't know Barry Bonds from the man in the moon. It was Thrift, notorious for poor-mouthing the talent, who keep alluding to Bonds: if Bonds did this he'd be better than Rickey Henderson; if Bonds did that he'd be better than Reggie Jackson; if Bonds did the other he might outhit Willie Mays. Thrift kept coming back to Bonds so much, I began watching him.

I watched his performance closely over the next 15 years, as he won six NL MVPs -- six! -- and p.o.'ed a lot of people in the process.

Now I'm supposed to think he swallowed something that did that for him? Give me a break. This frenzy, this 'Roid Outrage -- and that would include investigations and any political currency shrewdly gained by the current crop of politicans -- seems to me to be rather curiously timed to Barry Bonds being on the cusp of breaking the home-run records of the most iconic figure(s) in all of American baseball history. Really, though, wouldn't you agree, it's mostly all about him passing Babe Ruth, the mighty Babe, and then, oh-by-the-way, Hank Aaron? Isn't it about Barry Bonds breaking those records by "cheating"? Isn't it about fair play, and being "clean," and the "purity" of the game? Isn't it about whether Bonds' records are now "tainted"? Isn't it?

The Steroid Debate
Here's a look at ESPN.com's latest coverage of the BALCO scandal and the steroid debate:

  • The latest news: Bonds refuses comment on steroid issue

  • The Writers' Bloc: Is the media simply out to get Barry Bonds?

  • Jim Caple: What really happened to the BALCO seven?

  • The photographic evidence: Then & Now

  • The Writers' Bloc: 'Roids are too dangerous to mess with

  • The Writers' Bloc: Who cares? Let them eat steroids!

  • Sportoon: A visit to Dr. Longball
  • Well, then, let me suggest this to you, and it doesn't matter if what I say now causes such outrage in your heart that you go Romo on me, want to throw your laptop and break my left orbital socket with it. Might be a good idea, as far as you're concerned, but it won't change the truth of it.

    Ruth's records are tainted. Aaron's records are tainted.. They were each amassed by human beings performing in imperfect human systems. So of course they're tainted. But I do not blame Babe Ruth, hold it against him, that his records were amassed in a league that prohibited the participation of much of the skilled labor force, the black and the brown, the Latin American or the Asian, the African-Americans from the same land of origin.

    I can't hold that against Babe Ruth's records, and I'm pretty sure you can't either. That wasn't his fault. I mean, was he supposed to hold a bus boycott or something? Wasn't his fault the game was not pure. I can't really blame Babe Ruth if his prodigious and voracious appetites for food and alcohol and sex cost him another 86 home runs, which he probably would've hit had he trained harder and taken better care of himself. These are the variables of any given human life. The book says he hit 714 in the big leagues. I can only go by that. For that is the nature of baseball. It is a game that relies on the Book of Numbers, not personal lifestyle choices, to define its champions. All of a sudden, all the pure-number guys, the sabermetricians, are just like everybody else, going off emotion, feel -- they plain don't like Barry Bonds.

    Babe Ruth
    How many homers would the Babe have hit if he'd stayed in shape -- or played against African-Americans?

    If there was a "pure" era, it was the era between 1947 and, say, 1980, when performance-enhancing drugs became prevalent. That was the era occuring after Jackie Robinson opened up the game, the era of Mantle, Mays, Aaron and Clemente, and to some degree, Barry Bonds' father, Bobby. We all know how Mantle and Bobby Bonds badly damaged their careers with alcohol. We cluck and say what a shame it was -- we do in Mantle's case, anyway. But the book on Mantle says 536 home runs. It is what it is. Aaron says 755, although Aaron played in a stadium called the Launching Pad and hit the last 22 home runs as a DH.

    Now we are definitely in an era of performance-enhancing drugs; no need for any of us to be on any high horse about it. Without Toprol or Lotrel, anti- high-blood pressure drugs, or especially Nexium, I'm sure I'd be curled up in a ball somewhere. Do you want to get into all the performance enhancers you take? And is not all of your work still valid? Or, not? Am I supposed to believe nobody actually uses Cialis or Levitra or Viagra, that the companies making them are going broke? Why is it when NFL football players are shot up in their ankles and calves and knees and rib cages and shoulders and necks with pain-killers to numb themselves and then go out and sacrifice their damaged limbs so they can perform for us, we have no outrage over that?

    Why is that not "cheating"?

    No, something else is happening here.

    For some, this is simply an attempt to negate the accomplishments of Barry Bonds. I tend to agree with Bobby Valentine -- I've seen Bonds do things no other human being can do, just as Ruth and Ted Williams and Mantle and Mays and Aaron did things no other human being can do. Muscles don't play baseball. Hands and eyes play baseball. Longevity books it.

    Barry Bonds
    Great merit: Six MVPs and ... 756 home runs?

    So Barry Bonds remorselessly and relentless marches on, beyond the 660 home runs of Willie Mays, on past the 714 home runs of Babe Ruth, and finally, by the 755 home runs of Henry Aaron. Barry Bonds will become the greatest home-run hitter in baseball history.

    And apparently, that's what outrages many people, deep down inside.

    It has nothing to do with any steroids. Please. Oh please.

    A long time ago I wrote a funny little book called "Why Black People Tend To Shout." Now, if you hear that title and you don't laugh -- then you need to read that book! It is a humorous book. I was taught by the master, Mr. Mark Twain, that humor was the great leveler, that against the power of laughter, nothing can stand. Well, this 'Roid Outrage is funny to me.

    What Barry Bonds has done is show great merit in the game. Unfortunately, when you are what is called "black," that can be inconvenient; often when you show merit, the rules on merit are changed to make them more obtuse.

    When Aaron was approaching Ruth's home-run record in the early 1970s, all the stories were about how he had to endure all this racist hate mail and kidnapping threats against his daughter -- how he had to endure against the real protagonist, the Status Quo. It wasn't about how great a htter he was.

    I'd say that's the part that's cheating. I'd say Aaron got cheated.

    It's all fine and good to make up myths about so many events, athletic ones included, that don't contain any African-Americans, and I don't have to list them all here, and in fact don't have time, but sometimes I get the feeling some sports fans would like it better if all of sports history was rather like an episode of "Friends." Fine, when it comes to making movies, and giving out awards, and waxing nostalgic. But it seems to me when a man spends 20 years showing merit, in reality, not fiction, he ought to able to eat his grapes without people saying how sour they are, what a cheater he is, how impure his records are, how what he's doing doesn't count in the grand scheme.

    No? That's exactly where he does count.

    We don't judge Barry Bonds, friends.

    I do fear we only judge ourselves.

    Ralph Wiley has written articles for Sports Illustrated, Premiere, GQ, and National Geographic, and many national newspapers. He was one of the original NFL Insiders on NBC. His many books include "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir," "Why Black People Tend To Shout," "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X" with Spike Lee, "Dark Witness," "Best Seat in the House" with Spike Lee, "Born to Play" with Eric Davis, and "Growing Up King" with Dexter Scott King and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. He contributes to many ESPN productions, and bats cleanup on a weekly basis for Page 2.